Read #147

“The Vikings in their time, did their marauding openly, but now it is considered the greatest courtesy to usurp public opinion with the help of daily newspapers and beguile poor people into taking sides against their own children. They shape public opinion by having abusive articles written about people who devote themselves to trying to ensure commoners’ children be provided with milk to drink, better housing and a decent upbringing. In the past, these same kinds of persons made a sport of catching infants on spearheads. Now they target the children’s parents to get them to cast votes against their offspring in politics… these capitalist assassins, have no other feelings than hatred of their fellow men for its own sake.

Salka Valka by Halldor Laxness: (translated by Philip Roughton)

At 550 pages this is not short, but it is extremely readable. Written in the period 1930-2, it seems to be comprised of two books pushed together – which is not at all a fault.

Salka Valka is the shortened version of the name of the main character, who is first seen at the age of 11, being put ashore with her single mum in the small northern Icelandic fishing village Oseryi in Axlarfjordur, when it became apparent that her mum could not afford the full fare all the way to Reykjavik. The first half of the book describes their scrambling attempts to find a foothold in work and society, amongst this tight-knit inward looking people. Their lives and fortunes mainly revolve around fishing, the different seasons of the fish trade, and the salting, storing and export of them. There is a stock paternalist/landlord character who oversees life in the village by means of his controlling the ledger of what is bought from his general store, the tick he allows to customers, balanced against the payment of their wages which all seem to go directly through his books: in short the village is always in debt to him. A family is deemed well off if they have furniture in their home. All travel around Iceland, if not on foot or horseback, seems to happen by boat, except on one rarified occasion when a dignitary flies in on a boat-plane, only to leave again in short order.

Mum becomes increasingly involved with The Salvation Army, which has recently pitched up in the village and is the cause of conflict with the traditional religious life of the village. Meanwhile Salka proves herself to be quite the engaging – and probably for the time, scandalous – centre of the book. As an 11 year old girl, she refuse to wear “girls’ clothes”, insisting instead on trousers and shirts like the boys; she says she wants to be a boy; and she is full of combativeness – she does not back down from physical fights. To a modern day readership this opens up PhD theses and all kinds of theories, it is difficult to imagine how it would have been received 90 years ago, in Iceland. All this is quite remarkable to have come from the pen of a young male author, in his 20s at the time of writing.

The second part of the novel sees Salka few years older, dealing with the death of her mother, first love, and the increasing political tensions within the village – there is a lot of talk of Socialism / Communism (labelled “Bolshies”, by local press and business owners) – Salka is responsible for setting up the first Trade Union amongst the fishermen. The tensions between this newly politically awakened class and the establish landlord / debt owner are set out well. Salka’s first love, comes from the group of young men bringing this political agitation to the village, a young man derided for his soft hands and lack of work experience as well as for having travelled abroad. Interestingly the women / girls like Salka, are shown as pretty much the equal of their male counterparts, in terms of working life, within their class – Salka was working from the age of 11, side by side with the other women of the village. When it came to domestic chores there was of course no such parity.

It is a hugely enjoyable read and one that must have seemed quite forward looking, if not radical, for its time.

Laxness was a hugely prolific author, translator, trainee monk (for a short while), interpreter of Icelandic sagas and essayist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 – this novel is frequently referred to as his masterpiece.

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